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Misconceptions

10 Historical Events That Were Much Shorter Than You Thought

Morris M.


It’s the maxim of every creative writing class: “Short is sweet.” Apparently, history’s been taking note. While most of us may envision the past as a series of long epochs and incremental changes, the truth is some of the most important events ended practically before they had begun.

10Blackbeard’s Reign Of Terror Lasted Only 15 Months

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Photo credit: Benjamin Cole

Nearly 300 years after his death, Blackbeard’s name is still synonymous with piracy. Everything from his terrifying appearance to his romantic outlaw status continues to influence how we imagine pirates. Without him, we’d have no Treasure Island or Pirates of the Caribbean. (On the plus side, we’d also have no Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.)

Yet Teach’s career wasn’t exactly distinguished by longevity. His entire stint as captain of a pirate ship barely lasted more than a single year.

In mid-1717, Teach was just another crewman under notorious pirate Benjamin Hornigold. There he probably would have stayed, had Hornigold not accepted an amnesty offer by the British crown. Suddenly without a captain, Teach realized his time had come. Seizing a French vessel, he equipped it with guns, assembled a 200-man crew, and became the ferocious pirate Blackbeard.

For a short while, he was shockingly successful. So successful that the British decided to get rid of him. In fall 1718, the governor of Virginia dispatched a navy fleet to deal with the Blackbeard problem. By mid-November, it had caught up with him. On November 22, the two sides engaged in the bloody battle of Ocracoke Island. By the time the smoke settled, Blackbeard was dead. At that point, he’d been captain a mere 15 months.

It wasn’t just Blackbeard’s career that was short-lived. According to the Smithsonian, the golden age of Caribbean piracy we see in movies lasted no more than seven years.



9The Aztec Empire Didn’t Even Make It To 100

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Photo credit: Rob Young

Although their pyramids and human sacrifices make them seem impossibly remote, the Aztecs were a relatively recent civilization. Their capital city of Tenochtitlan wasn’t founded until 1325, nearly three-quarters of a century after Oxford University first opened its doors.

Even then, they were just one warring city-state among many others. It would take over 100 years for the Aztecs to team up with their neighbors in Tlacopan and Texcoco and start their campaign of conquest. The move allowed them to build an empire that was vast and short-lived. Although they wound up controlling much of modern-day central Mexico, the Aztec Empire collapsed after only 94 years.

By way of comparison, the Classic period of Mayan civilization lasted a staggering six and a half centuries. The Olmecs racked up eight. There are people who have managed to live longer than Aztec civilization did.

The difference is none of those had to contend with the conquest-happy Spanish. At the height of their power, the Aztecs welcomed a man known as Hernando Cortes into their community. He responded by murdering and enslaving them all.

8Arthur Rimbaud Gave Up Writing After Just Four Years

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Photo credit: Etienne Carjat

In the pantheon of great poets, Arthur Rimbaud may just be the greatest of them all. A bisexual French vagabond discovered by Paul Verlaine on the streets of Paris, Rimbaud went on to transform world literature. He invented surrealism. His work influenced everyone from Henry Miller to Bob Dylan and Jack Kerouac. He managed all this in just four short years.

In 1870, Rimbaud was a 16-year-old runaway with an interest in poetry. Arriving destitute in Paris, he made contact with the writer Paul Verlaine. Fascinated by this strange, beautiful young man, Verlaine agreed to take him in. Under the nose of Verlaine’s wife, the two embarked on a torrid gay love affair. It was at this turbulent point that Rimbaud started writing seriously. The results were phenomenal. You can read a few translations here.

In no time at all, Rimbaud was the darling of the Paris literary scene. He changed how poets were working and sent French literature off in new and exciting directions. His fans looked forward to decades of new and challenging and brilliant works.

And then he stopped.

Less than five years after leaving home, Rimbaud put down his pen and never wrote a single line again. Instead he became an ardent colonialist, making a killing in the port city of Aden. For the rest of his life, he refused to speak about his work, considering it worthless and “disgusting.” He died from cancer at age 37, his unwanted literary reputation already cemented.



7Athens’s Original Democracy Imploded In 50 Years

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Photo credit: Qwqchris/Wikimedia

Step out of a time machine in Ancient Greece and you probably have a good idea of what you’d expect to see. Togas, flowing beards, and—most important of all—democracy. The Athenians under Cleisthenes famously invented rule by the people, and ever since, we’ve been falling over ourselves to replicate it. Yet the Greeks didn’t love their invention quite as much as we do. Less than 50 years after their democracy began, they started to get rid of it.

The rot first set in with the election of Pericles as general in 461 BC. By that point, Athenian democracy had been in action for 47 years. Unfortunately, it lacked many of the checks and balances we associate with it today, such as fixed terms for leaders. In Ancient Athens, a general could be reelected repeatedly, so long as he was capable of influencing the voters. Pericles was a master at exercising influence. For over 25 years, he was repeatedly elected to office and repeatedly given carte blanche to do whatever he liked. The historian Thucydides claimed Athens was “in name a democracy but, in fact, governed by its first man.”

Things got even worse after Pericles’s death. In 415 BC, a group of citizens, angered at Athens’s recent defeats, staged a coup, setting up a kind of oligarchy. In 404 BC, even that was swept away, replaced by a vicious brand of authoritarianism.

Luckily, democracy didn’t die. Although Athens’s original attempt quickly failed, the Greeks eventually decided to try again. After the authoritarian government was finally deposed, democracy was reinstituted. This time, it made it a whole 80 years before conquest by the Macedonians snuffed it out again.

6Alexander The Great’s Empire Lasted Less Than A Decade

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Photo via Wikimedia

Speaking of the Macedonians, what about the greatest Macedonian of them all, a man so great, he literally made the word part of his name? Alexander the Great came to the throne in 336 BC and immediately set off on a campaign of conquest. He held control of Greece, sacked Persia, claimed Egypt, and seized territory as far away as modern India.

Yet it was all for nothing. From its tentative first moments to its final, dying breath, Alexander’s empire lasted less than a decade. By the standards of the time, this was spectacularly poor. The Roman and Mauryan Empires all started around the same time and lasted centuries.

The trouble was that Alexander made no contingency plan in case of his death. When he died from a fever in 323 BC, his generals had no interest in cooperating to secure their new borders. Instead, they divided the land among themselves, fell to war, and shattered the empire beyond repair.

All told, the full empire lasted only from 325–319 BC, a mere six years. For comparison, it’s been longer than that since The Dark Knight came out. We’ve had Facebook almost double that time.

5The Qin Dynasty Didn’t Even Make It To 20

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When you think of Ancient China, you’re probably thinking of the Qin Dynasty. They’re the guys who unified China’s warring parts into a single state. They’re the guys who built the Great Wall and, less happily, burned all the books. Their emperor is the guy buried with all the terra-cotta warriors. They were probably the most important dynasty in Chinese history—and they crashed and burned before they were old enough to go to college.

For almost 800 years, the majority of modern China had been ruled by the Zhou Dynasty, a period that saw great thinkers like Confucius and Laozi come to prominence. Then, in 476 BC, catastrophe struck. The social fabric ripped apart as China split into multiple warring states. Centuries of violence and aggression followed. It seemed like China was doomed to split into multiple hostile countries. Then the Qin state suddenly got the upper hand. By 221 BC, they’d subdued all their rivals and seized control. It was the first time anyone had brought the whole of China together.

With a pedigree like that, it’s tempting to think they would have lasted for decades, maybe centuries. Not even close. By 210 BC, the Emperor was dead, killed in mysterious circumstances. Four years and some murdered successors later, his dynasty was over. The Han seized control, ushering in an age that would last 400 years. Its Qin predecessor had lasted only 15.



4The Blitz Was Over In Eight Months

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Photo credit: National Archives

In modern British history, nothing looms quite so large as the Blitz. A series of devastating raids carried out by the Luftwaffe, it came at a time when Britain stood alone against the Nazis. Around 43,000 civilians died, and almost one-third of London was destroyed. It was the defining moment of the war in Britain, a period still mythologized today for its communal “blitz spirit.” It was also over in just eight short months.

The raids began on September 7, 1940. Out of nowhere, 300 German bombers descended and blew the London Docks to smithereens; 450 people died, and over 1,000 were badly injured. It was the start of 57 consecutive nights of bombing in London. Other major cities were also hit. In November, Coventry was burned to the ground. At the time, it probably felt like it was going to last until every single man, woman, and child in Britain was dead. But by May 1941, Hitler was bored with fighting the British. He sent the Luftwaffe instead to Russia, after a final London raid killed 3,000. The Blitz was over.

That’s not to say the UK didn’t continue to suffer. V1 and V2 rocket attacks in 1944 killed almost 9,000 civilians, and Exeter and Canterbury were flattened in surprise raids. But the mythologized Blitz of British TV shows and movies was finished faster than the average pregnancy.

3The Magna Carta Was In Force For Only One Year

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Photo credit: British Library

Eight hundred years ago, a group of mutinous English barons forced King John to sign a document limiting his own power. Known as the Magna Carta, it was the foundation of modern democracy. It marked the first time a European monarch allowed his divine right to rule to be questioned. The US Constitution was directly inspired by it. It continues to shape British law. Yet the original version was scrapped after barely a year.

When King John died in 1216, his successor, Henry III, was desperate to get the Barons on his side. Fearing an attack by the future Louis VIII of France, he reissued the Magna Carta, tying himself to its clauses just as King John had. As a way to consolidate his position, it worked. But not every single part of the original charter made it through. Of 63 clauses, only 42 survived. Among those to go was the fabled Clause 61.

Clause 61 was arguably the most important of the lot. Known as the “Security Clause,” it was the part of the Magna Carta that guaranteed the king wouldn’t be above the law. Taking it away removed the entire point of the charter. It would be like removing the First Amendment from the Bill of Rights. Yet none of the Magna Carta reissues in 1216, 1217, or 1225 contained any reference to it. It wasn’t until after Henry III was deposed at the end of the Baron’s War in 1264 that legal checks on the power of the king returned.

2The Spanish-American War Was Even Shorter Than You Think

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Photo via Wikimedia

In 1898, the US entered its first major foreign war. Spurred on by Spain’s appalling treatment of Cuba, America began the Spanish-American War. By the end, the US had acquired Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Spain had lost the remnants of its empire. In the eight short months between the April declaration of war and the December signing of the peace treaty, the world had completely changed.

In reality, the war was even shorter than its official duration suggests. The actual fighting lasted barely over two months.

Although war was declared in late April, no one took initiative until May. On the first of the month, Commodore George Dewey took a squadron into Manila Bay in the Philippines and proceeded to blast the Spanish Navy into little flaming pieces. It was the first action in what was to be a profoundly short conflict. All through June, the Americans hammered the Spanish, culminating in the humiliating destruction of the Spanish Caribbean squadron on July 3.

At this point, the war effectively ended. The Cuban capital of Santiago tried to hold on for another 14 days, but on July 17, its leaders faced up to facts and surrendered. While the ceasefire wouldn’t be signed until August 12, and the peace treaty not until December, the war was won.

1Julius Caesar’s Reign Was Shockingly Brief

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Photo credit: Andreas Wahra

The warrior who turned the Republic into a dictatorship, Caesar still casts a long shadow over European history. Yet the historical Caesar spent only a fraction of his life as the supreme commander of Rome. Of the 56 years he spent on this Earth, only two were at the head of the Empire.

For most of his life, Caesar was busy moving between the army and the political stage. In about 83 BC, at the age of 17, he escaped a sticky situation at home by signing up for military service. From that point until middle age, he kept running back and forth between the demands of an army lifestyle and his ambitions in the Senate. It took until he was 41, in 59 BC, before he received any position of true power. As an elected consul, Caesar was put in charge of a large swath of the empire and received sway in the Senate. But even then, his career was kept in check by his colleagues. They dispatched him far from Rome on a mission to conquer Gaul, a task that kept him tied up for the better part of a decade.

It took until 49 BC, when he was 51, for Caesar to finally try a power grab. Taking his troops into Italy, he ignited a civil war that raged for three years. Having put himself in charge of all Rome, he then had to spend the next 12 months abroad, mopping up his enemies and securing his position. Finally, in 45 BC, Julius Caesar at last became the undisputed ruler of the empire. Even then, he didn’t technically become emperor (today, Augustus is considered the first real emperor). It also didn’t last. In 44 BC, Caesar was murdered by his own senators, a disappointing climax to a life spent yearning for supreme power.

Morris M.

Morris is a freelance writer and newly-qualified teacher, still naively hoping to make a difference in his students' lives. You can send your helpful and less-than-helpful comments to his email, or visit some of the other websites that inexplicably hire him.

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